It’s not often that my family’s home state of Karnataka makes the news. My husband once joked that we’re so quiet nobody knows we exist (this was probably in response to a jibe I made about Gujaratis). When we are covered in international outlets, I certainly take notice.
In December 2021, six teenage girls in the coastal town of Udupi started wearing the hijab alongside their regular school uniform. This violated the government school’s dress policy, and the school enforced its rules, stating that the girls must revert to their manner of dressing before December 2021. This same dress code prohibits the display of any religious symbol deemed “non-essential” in the classroom, including saffron scarves.
The uproar that followed pits the school against a part of the local Muslim community as well as their prominent supporters around the world who say the school’s position is a violation of the girls’ human rights. Social media users in India and the diaspora are split between those who see the decision to embrace the hijab as an expression of female empowerment and those who see the covering of women as a patriarchal practice that does not belong in a secular space.
The central question in the Udupi hijab row, the question being deliberated by the Karnataka High Court, is whether the hijab is an essential religious practice, thereby offering it the same protection as the Sikh turban and allowance in regulated spaces (schools, military, etc.) regardless of dress code. The term essential religious practice is constitutional, and many Indian religious practices in the secular space must pass this litmus test. A recent, rather famous example is the Sabrimala judgment, met with frustration by devout Hindus. Whether a secular court should determine what is and isn’t essential to a religion is deeply controversial. See a review of major court cases addressing this topic for several religions here.
This is the Karnataka story making headlines around the world. It is not the story that I find deeply unsettling, however.
Udupi is not just any town in Karnataka. It is the home of Madhavacharya and is considered the birthplace of Dvaita Vedanta, one of the three strains of Vedic philosophy. Its importance to the Dvaita tradition cannot be understated, and the larger Madhava Sampradhya of the Vaishnava tradition considers it their epicenter. The Udupi Krishna Temple is famous across India, and its story is familiar even to Kannadiga children outside the Madhava tradition.
A few years before I visited Udupi in 1999, my mother told me the story of one of the temple’s Krishna murtis that famously turned to meet the gaze of a devotee denied entry to the temple because of his social class. That devotee was Kanakadasa, who went on to become a famous Kannadiga poet in the Haridasa devotional movement, which was driven by non-Brahmin poets and composers.
It is against this cultural ethos that the hijab controversy has erupted. Ninety miles away from Udupi is the town of Shivamogga. My grandparents lived there for a year shortly after they got married in our nearby ancestral village. This region of Western Karnataka, covering Udupi, Shivamogga, and my ancestral village, comprises the greater Mallenadu region. It’s one of the rainiest places in India, and my childhood self always looked forward to visiting this “Amazonia” as I thought of it.
On the night of February 20th, 28-year-old Harsha, a tailor from Shivamogga, was hacked to death by 11 men outside a gas station. The next morning, the otherwise sleepy town awoke to news of the violent death, and demonstrations against his death turned violent. The city’s schools were shut down once again, having just reopened after a temporary shutdown over fears of a violent spillover from Udupi’s hijab protests.
Press coverage of the incident seeks to underplay his murder and focus on how the Hindu community’s pain stokes fear in local Muslims.
Harsha was a local Hindu rights activist whose work included finding legal and medical support for impoverished Hindus in the area as well as animal rescue from India’s cruel underground animal slaughter network. The interviews with his family and friends that I saw on Kannada language TV show a young, energetic man who loved to dance and felt a sense of responsibility towards his community. In the weeks leading to his death, he was active in demonstrations against the “hijab row,” holding the belief that making a dress-code exception for the hijab in this one school was appeasement politics.
My allegation isn’t that the Indian media failed to cover his murder, though the international media, eager to give platforms to polarizing figures in the hijab controversy, certainly did. The abject disregard for the victim’s life and death catches my attention. Press coverage of the incident seeks to underplay his murder and focus on how the Hindu community’s pain stokes fear in local Muslims. One story even mildly suggests that he was initially the aggressor. Almost all stories in the Anglophone media undermine the value of his life by casting him as a Hindu nationalist, a term often used to invalidate ideas and people with impunity. Compare this to the positive portrayal of the protesting school girls and their parents, also activists for their religious community.
There is also the other unspoken facet of Harsha’s death: it is not the first low-profile, high-impact murder of a Hindu man this year. The murder of Kishan Bharwad over a social media post and Rupesh Pandey during a Hindu religious procession barely got a mention in the Indian media this year. Like Harsha’s killers, the names of Kishan and Rupesh’s murderers introduce a glaring religious angle that is overwhelmingly ignored in the coverage of these cases. Hindudvesha, or Hinduphobia, is written about extensively in the Hindu American community and knows no geographic boundaries.
This brings me back to Karnataka. I hope that the temporary, negative attention on the state won’t undermine its unique character. It is the only state in southern India of notable multilingual composition, as many of its citizens claim Kannada, Tulu, Konkani, and even Sanskrit as their native languages. It is the home not only to the Madhava tradition but one of Advaita Vedanta’s holiest sites in Sringeri.
The violence and polarization that have rocked Udupi and Shivamogga are all the more jarring because of what Karnataka is, which is an economically and culturally rich state, the descendant of the Vijaynagar Empire. The oft cast denigration of Hindu activism is that it is led by the upper caste elites. But like Kannakadasa, Harsha belongs to the “other backward castes,” and activism like his provides the backbone to Hindu resistance and existence over the centuries. The Karnataka High Court has yet to finalize whether the hijab is an essential religious practice of Islam.
In the meantime, I’m actually looking forward to when Karnataka disappears from the headlines.